A rising star on the international organ circuit, Ahreum Han first crossed our radar as part of a “festival of organ divas” at Trinity Church about eighteen months ago. Since then she’s earned her master’s at Yale while serving as organist at Stamford, Connecticut’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Han plays with great focus, fire and intensity, yet this time out she brought the fun set.
Jeanne Demessieux’s work is well known in the organ community; it deserves a wider audience, so it was nice to see Han tackle all the memorable contrasts in Demesieux’s Te Deum, Op. 11. A richly melodic, diverse piece, Han brought out all the spookiness in the pedals beneath the soaring upper register swells that open the piece, smartly negotiated the tricky little waltz that follows and aired out the big block-chord conclusion, veering eerily off into atonality and then back again. Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Valse Mignonne, Op. 142, No. 2 seems to be a favorite of Han’s. The title is a misnomer: playful as it is, it’s not exactly cute and Han made sure everybody got that, emphasizing the distant longing in the wistful musette movement halfway through, then going warm and cantabile to end on a lullaby note with a gracefully memorable three-chord motif.
The showstopper was Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on Ad Nos, ad Salutarem Undam, S. 259. It’s an intricately sophisticated, frequently exhilarating example of a composer taking a centuries-old device – in this case, variations on a hymn – to the next level. Its quiet ambience contrasting with bold, heroic passages, it’s easy to see how Charles Widor would pick up on the idea and popularize a new style, the organ symphony. Han worked the counterpoint vividly, low pedals providing a striking undercurrent to all the upper-register swirls, stabbed out the Beethovenesque insistence of the second movement with a merciless precision and then tore through the majestic, triumphant, full-bore processional that takes it out in a rumbling blaze of glory.
Han may have once been characterized as a diva but she hardly comes across as one – the church staff practically had to push her out of the console, visibly winded after such a physically exhausting performance, for a second standing ovation.